By Patrice Melnick
Catalyst Book Press, $15 softcover;
“How long will I live?”
Patrice Melnick asked her doctor that question when he told her a test had revealed human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in her blood. In this frank and graceful autobiographical memoir, Melnick uses the skills she teaches as a creative writing professor and poet to craft a revealing and moving account of living her life under the shadow of a potentially fatal diagnosis.
In the early 1980s, Melnick was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangassou, the Central African Republic. One day she fell ill. “I began to feel sick on the day I went to see the animals,” she writes. As the photo safari continued and the day dragged on, Melnick felt sicker and sicker. She had severe pain in her abdomen. After two days, she was finally flown out in a small plane to a private French clinic where doctors could not help her.
She had to be flown to the United States. “Red African earth was encrusted between my toes, lions roared in my head and a pain gnawed at my side.” But she arrived in Washington, D.C. and immediately received emergency surgery for a dermoid cyst on her left ovary.
“My ovary had grown large and heavy with cysts until it twisted and became gangrenous,” she writes.
The operation was successful. A week and a half later, Melnick, recuperating at her parents’ home in Dallas, got a phone call. The Peace Corps administrator in Washington wanted her to come back to have some blood tests repeated — “No big deal, we just need to repeat some tests, HIV and some others.”
No big deal. The young woman was about to be given the most devastating news of her life which would prompt the cryptic question about how long she will live. The doctor’s answer? “I don’t think I can predict that.”
After the initial shock, Melnick realized she had HIV, not full-blown AIDS. Of course the possibility loomed, even seemed probable. The shock sent her wandering the streets of Washington, trying to walk off her despair. “Busy people laughed and hurried by. I feared future years. What would it feel like to have HIV attack my brain?”
Po-Boy Contraband (the title refers to sneaking a sandwich into a movie theater) is not a story about dying. It’s not about AIDS, at least not directly. Melnick is a survivor, and her impulse toward life sustained her in the time just after her diagnosis. She networked with people and heard stories of HIV patients who had lived normally for years. “These were the kinds of stories I longed to hear. Through them, I could perhaps learn to believe in my own survival. I pocketed this thought like another penny and I jingled it against the coin already in my pocket, I jingled the word pennies together, in rhythm, creating a quiet copper tune.”
That jingle sustained her as she learned to cope with her life complicated by the ever-present virus. Years passed, and the cocktail of medications she takes each day — “nelfinavir, ritonavir, efavirenz, abacavir, didanosine …” — has suppressed her viral load and kept her relatively healthy. She did suffer one bout of shingles and recovered. Afterward, she had to see an ophthalmologist to make sure her eyes weren’t damaged by the shingles. He asked “the” question.
“So where did you get it from?”
Melnick was honest and up front about everything. “‘From sex,’ I said. ‘Sex with a man.’”
“Do you know from who?” he continued. “Got it in the Central African Republic,” Melnick told him. “In the Peace Crops.”
“Was it from a white man or from a black man?” he asked.
“My stomach tightened into a fist. White or black? Good or bad? My heart raced. I felt like the doctor had shifted me from the ‘blood transfusion — victim’ box to the ‘sex — guilt’ box and now he was trying to figure out whether to toss me from the ‘sex-with-white-man’ box down into the ‘sex-with-black-man’ box.”
The strength that sustained Melnick was not just physical, not drug-assisted alone. Her character buoyed her when she confronted people like the bigoted ophthalmologist. Her undiminished appreciation of life kept her hope for the future alive, and she didn’t give up. She went on to get an MFA from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Then she followed a lifelong dream and moved to New Orleans where she taught creative writing at Xavier University. After Hurricane Katrina, Melnick moved to the tiny Cajun village of Grand Coteau near Lafayette and opened a gift shop that now also serves as the site of a weekly reading and open mic poetry series. She eventually she met and married a man in Louisiana, a man who fully accepts her, HIV and all.
In 2008, she inaugurated the Festival of Words, a four-day festival of literary arts. In 2010, Melnick founded the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective which promotes literary arts in the Acadiana/south Louisiana region. For her work with “public programs that deliver literature and poetry to thousands of people in Acadiana.”
Melnick has been named a winner of the Public Humanities Programming award by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. In her nomination letter to LEH, Gaye Hamilton of the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development wrote, “Poet laureates, high school students, burgeoning and established authors, elderly residents of the community who record recollections of their life, and audiences that never would have been reached, have all benefited from Patrice’s vision and offerings.”
Melnick will formally receive her LEH award during a luncheon Saturday, April 6, at Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow. Yet she still has no answer to her question. She doesn’t know how long she will live. She acknowledges that her experience is not typical of someone who is diagnosed with HIV.
She is humbled by her good fortune. She knows her luck may change one day, so she is determined to make her life one that is meaningful and full of hope for as long as it lasts.